Review: Collected Poems by Primo Levi

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For once, I’m going to write a serious book review, because the work of Primo Levi really does deserve some respect. In case you don’t know anything about him, Levi was born in Italy in 1919 to a Jewish family. He trained as a chemist, but the Second World War drastically altered his fate. After fighting in the Italian Resistance Movement, he was captured and in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews who went there with him, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive. He managed this through a combination of luck and good judgement – his scientific knowledge led him to work within the camp’s laboratories attempting to make synthetic rubber, thus avoiding hard labour in freezing outdoor conditions and providing him with an opportunity to steal materials which could be traded for food with the other inmates. Shortly before the camp was liberated, Levi contracted Scarlet Fever and thus avoided the Auschwitz evacuation initiated by the SS which resulted in the death of the vast majority of the prisoners. After the war, he went on to become an author, and produced (amongst other things) some of the most haunting poetry that I’ve ever read.

This book is not to be read by the faint hearted. The earlier poems contained within the first third of the work are clearly an attempt by Levi to come to terms with the horrors of the war and although they often feature themes of anger and desolation, there’s also a sense of forgiveness. It’s quite amazing, considering what he must have gone through, but there’s never any judgement or blame – only reflection and bewilderment that the human race can treat each other so appallingly.

As Levi gets older, his poetry becomes more expansive and although many of the themes of warning, loss and regret are the same, the references become more veiled and allegorical. There’s also quite a lot of literary references (some are more obvious than others) but in the volume that I read all are referenced for easy explanation in the back of the book. I’ve seen some reviewers say that they think Levi’s later work isn’t as good as his war poetry, but I found the same narrative streak running through it all and thought that almost all of the poems had the same level of gravity and emotion.

The language used within Levi’s poetry is surprisingly gentle, and the meditative tone suggests a man trying to make sense of his experiences, rather than to shock or horrify. It’s an incredibly honest and emotive look at life, and Levi has a special way of using concise language to convey a myriad of thoughts and feelings. Although the book itself is quite slim, I would urge you to take your time in reading each poem individually, and really think about what message Levi was trying to get across.

I haven’t rated this book as it seems like an incredibly crass thing to do – but I do highly recommend it to you all.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #23 Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

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Review: The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy

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—————PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING—————

Do not attempt to read “The Tent, the Bucket and Me – My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s” by the ever lovely and oh-so talented Emma Kennedy in public. Doing so can and will resort in displays of mirth (including snorting, giggling helplessly and the occasional full laughing fit) the likes of which the British public will not take kindly to. Please be aware that other vocal outbursts such as gasps of “oh no!”, cries of disgust and shouts of “oooh, I remember that!” may also take place.

In particular, the following segments have been identified as dangerously hazardous to health:

– The part where the entire family nearly die in a hurricane
– The part where Emma steps down a “hole in the ground” toilet and finds herself thigh deep in other people’s excrement
– The part where Emma’s Dad has to eat raw seafood
– The part where Emma has a rectal thermometer inserted into her anus in front of a crowd of nosy holidaymakers
– All parts where Emma shits herself (frequent mentions, specifically in relation to holidays in France)

In controlled experiments, responses to these anecdotes have created violent outburst of hilarity from the reader, which may cause alarm, concern or severe shock to members of the general public. Persons of a nervous disposition or fitted with a pacemaker may wish to avoid this novel in it’s entirety to avoid the risk of serious injury to health.

Please do not eat or drink whilst reading this book. Many of the stories contained within it’s pages present a significant choking hazard. The wearing of eye make and restrictive clothing is similarly inadvisable. Items such as mascara and liquid eyeliner can cause pain and irritation when silent tears of laughter course down your face when reading, for example, how Emma becomes coated in another child’s vomit on a ferry. If this occurs, rinse with water and consult a doctor if symptoms persist for more than 24 hours.

Please be aware that “The Tent, the Bucket and Me – My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s” by Emma Kennedy is recommended to treat symptoms of mild to moderate depression, sadness and melancholy. Readers may experience a return of their symptoms when they learn of the family’s decision to scrap Bessie, the faithful Land Rover but these should desist by the end of the chapter.

The usage of photographs within this book has been prohibited by Public Health England (PHE) due to the significant risk of death by dangerous amusement. Complaints arising from their removal may be directed to PHE directly; however it should be noted that any letters stating “this book would have been so much better with a few photos” will be immediately recycled in accordance with current environmental legislation and green scheme targets. A response may therefore not be provided. 

Individuals who wish to re-read this novel must do so at their own risk. Dangerously elevated levels of amusement may occur as a result of remembering what happens next. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, dizziness and/or premature ejaculation of laughter. If you are concerned about these issues or any other side effects please consult your doctor or other healthcare professional immediately.

Please remember that the 1970’s were DIFFERENT TIMES and as such none of the stories told within this book should be recreated.

Do not under any circumstances try this at home.

PHE Rating: 4.5/5
Emma Kennedy is not liable for any injuries sustained from the perusal, purchase or consumption of The Tent, the Bucket and Me – My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s. Readers must proceed with caution and do so at their own risk. Usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is advised.

Please note that this book has been read in accordance with Book Riot Read Harder guideline #9 (Read a book you’ve read before) and Popsugar guideline #18 (Read a book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile).

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Wow. You know when you read something that’s really hard hitting and epic and ambitious and feels completely authentic even though you know the characters aren’t real? That’s this book. It’s so powerful I’m not even sure where to begin.

Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of two sisters, Olanna and Kainene and their lives during the civil war in Nigeria. The fighting over land and political rule results in the short lived founding of a new nation – Biafra – and the women are caught up in the chaos that ensues. Told from both of their perspectives, plus Olanna’s servant Ugwu and Richard, Kainene’s British partner, we get to see the horrors of the war from very different perspectives.

At first, the novel is a fascinating portrayal of life in 1960’s Nigeria. Olanna and Kainene are from a privileged upper middle class family and it was really interesting to see how indigenous people with power and money were living in a post colonial society that still seemed very British. Juxtaposed to this was the extended family, who lived in villages with a far more traditional way of life. Being able to see both the lives of both the rich and the poor was really interesting, especially as I’ve read very few books about Africa in general and certainly not any from this time period. What struck me most was how oddly modern life seemed to be – Olanna and Kainene are both unmarried and living with partners, they attend university and have good jobs. That’s certainly not something that I expected to be happening in the 1960’s anywhere in the world, but especially not somewhere that I would think of today as being quite profoundly Christian.

Just as my interest in the story started to wane, civil war breaks out and suddenly, everything is thrown up in the air. What amazed me was how, for a good portion of the book, most of the characters tried to continue as normal with their daily lives. I’d never thought about war from as something that slowly creeps up on people but this book illustrates perfectly how it slowly affected little things, like your ability to travel or access to imported foods, until, one issue at a time, your life is subtly changed until it is almost unrecognizable.

As the book progresses, the horrors of war become more apparent and as the violence increases, so does the suffering of the people. Adichie doesn’t shy away from the impact of things like starvation and malnutrition on children and, although we don’t see any first hand account of front line fighting, the novel is quite graphic and shockingly sad. It is this insidiousness, the mundanity and powerlessness of the general population that is so well captured and gives the novel such extraordinary weight.

Half of a Yellow Sun also contains a book within a book – I won’t say too much but at the end I was really pleased to find out who the author was. I liked that the book ended sometime after the civil war had finished so that I got to find out what had happened to all of the characters (almost). I’d become very attached to each of the four narrative voices, despite all of them being in some way flawed so it was nice to not be left with too many questions at the end. 

I don’t think that I could honestly say that I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun, but it is an amazing book and one that I would thoroughly recommend. I loved that the dominant characters were women and it was so interesting to not only learn about a completely different culture but to see it from a privileged female perspective. Yes, some parts were quite harrowing and bloody but then this is fundamentally a book set within a war zone so I think the violence is completely justified. The nearest novel that I could compare it to is Empire of the Sun – and in my book that’s high praise indeed.

Rating: 4/5
Epic, ambitious, utterly absorbing and completely unique. A great history lesson about an often overlooked war.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #14 Read a book about war and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #5 Read a book by a person of colour.

Review: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

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Oh, how I love this book. Love, love, LOVE it.

LOOOOOOOOVVVVVVE ITTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ahem.

My apologies, that wasn’t very British of me.

Anyway….

I’ve seen The Princess Bride pop up on “top 100 books” compilations for years but I’ve always been frightened that it  would be a sugary Disney fairytale – and I am not a Disney fan – so I basically avoided it. Then, as part of a reading challenge I had to find a book that was about books and up it popped. How weird, I thought to myself. What can a story about princesses getting married have to do with books?

As it turns out, not a lot – but there’s a whole story within a story that elevates the novel to a whole new level. It’s slightly confusing, but I’ll try to explain.

The Princess Bride is, basically, a big lie. The title is essentially rubbish as there are no princesses and no-one gets married. In the book, Buttercup is a beautiful farm girl who is spotted by the evil Count Rugen and is subsequently betrothed to the dastardly Prince Humperdink. However, Buttercup is in love with Westley (the farm hand) and ends up getting kidnapped before her wedding day – but despite this she’s often referred to as “Princess”. Even though she isn’t.

With me so far? Because it gets more complicated.

If we look back at the original title, we can see that there’s more to it than just a misleading inflation of Buttercup’s status. The novel is actually called:

“The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure; The ‘Good Parts’ Version, Abridged by William Goldman.”

This is also a lie.

There is no S. Morgenstern. There is no unabridged version of the book.

I know, it shocked me too.

Through a diary-like series of “interruptions” throughout the text, the reader is led to believe that William Goldman (who is real, and who has actually done all of the things that he says he has) gives a copy of his favourite childhood novel to his son, but to his dismay he finds that his son hates it. Upon re-reading the book, Goldman discovers that his father must have skipped some parts of the book as he read it out loud because there’s suddenly an awful lot of boring bits in the text that he didn’t know about. So, as a reader, you’re told that you’re reading the abridged Goldman version of the story, with frequent interruptions from Goldman himself explaining situations like how he’s deleted the next 30 pages for being too dull but they basically explain that everyone walked from point a to point b but nothing eventful happened.
Initially, I found this whole idea bizzare. I’d steeled myself for a saccharine love story but instead found myself reading about a middle aged man failing to connect with his wife and child. Then, when I was told I was reading an abridged novel, I immediately thought I’d bought the wrong copy of the book. Then I found out it was all a big cunning plot device and I didn’t know what to think. But then the story of Westley and Buttercup properly started, and I just fell in love with the whole thing.

I was worried that I’d find the “interruptions” from Goldman a bit offputting, but actually they were a brilliant way of speeding up the action and adding bits to the storyline that you might not otherwise have picked up on. I’m hopeless at finding hidden meanings or allegorical references in books so, for me, I really enjoyed this direct method of author/reader interaction. I also loved the way that Goldman frequently referred to bits of the story that were further on in the text, which made me pay more attention and acted a bit like a trailer for the next episode. Oooh!

I’ve heard people criticise the character of Buttercup (not a princess) by saying that she has no agency and just goes along with whatever people ask her to do. I beg to differ. When we first meet Buttercup, she’s filthy, smelly, and only interested in riding horses. She escapes dangerous situations (at least, she tries to). She’s also responsible for one of the best lines in a book ever;

“Enough about my beauty,” Buttercup said. “Everybody always talks about how beautiful I am. I’ve got a mind, Westley. Talk about that.”

Buttercup is basically my feminist hero.

Apart from Buttercup, all the other characters are so brilliantly written that you either completely love them or utterly despise them. I could go on for hours about how adorable Fezzick is, or how I loved how he worked with Inigo and Vizzini to create some of the best parts of the book. The Cliffs of Insanity! The Zoo of Death! Not just brilliantly named, but brilliantly written scenes with great characters and dialogue.

The ending (although it does go on a bit) is just amazing and ties everything up in a neat bow. I love books that do that.

If I had one criticism of The Princess Bride, it would be that occasionally, the mixture of fantasy and reality becomes a bit incongruous. There’s a very odd cameo by Stephen King and in parts it’s quite hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. However, when it works, it really does work and turns what would be a lovely story into a truly fantastic novel.

Rating: 5/5
Part magical fairy tale, part grown up book – an utterly unique mixture of fantasy and reality.

If you’re in the UK, selected cinemas are currently showing The Princess Bride for it’s thirty year(!) anniversary. I’ve never seen it, but if it’s half as good as the book then I think you’ll enjoy yourself.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #3 Read a book about books.

Review: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

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Dear Everyone Who Has Given This Book A Five Star Review (a quick glance at Goodreads suggests that there are many of you),

What on earth were you thinking?

From your comments, I’m not sure that we read the same novel. I appear to have downloaded a copy of the text in which someone (presumably with a vendetta against literature) has removed all of the action, the drama, the suspense and the narrative arc and replaced it with a series of scenes which, whilst somewhat amusing at first, slowly wear the reader down until they start having to make up challenges to get through the bloody thing. The Dickensian names, whilst initially pointing to a sense of humour, quickly become annoying. The characters are all miserable, grotesque individuals who are impossible to like or even feel empathy for. The castle and surrounding area is bleak and depressing. The storyline moves at a snail’s pace. Am I to believe that you genuinely gained enjoyment from this? Or are you just trying to look clever? I suspect the latter, overly positive Goodreaders.

If possible, I would like you to provide a brief synopsis of the story, in order to alleviate my concerns that I have somehow encountered a rogue copy. My summary would be;

“Baby Titus is born into the Groan family of Gormenghast Castle. He has a quiet start to life, the only occurrence of note being the unfortunate loss of many books in the great library fire, and the death of someone that I can’t name because spoilers. The End.”

Surely there is more to it. Dragons maybe? Magic(k) potions? All I got were white cats and blackbirds (which as we all know are way down on the magical fantasy animal rankings) plus one medicinal tonic which could have been magic but was more likely cod liver oil.

Perhaps Titus Groan is an elaborate ruse designed to lull readers into a state of boredom so hypnotic they become susceptible to subliminal marketing messages. I know I definitely dropped off a few times. I required litres of coffee to get through to the end. Are you all being sponsored by Mellow Birds Instant?

Please respond to my queries posthaste. I don’t want to leave a one star review and look stupid if this is, in fact, a brilliant book. I thank you for you attention to this matter and look forwards to your immediate response.

Kind regards,

Lucinda

Overall rating: Pending further investigation re: dragons. Provisional one star.

Please note that Mellow Birds will make you smile. I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #7 Read a book published between 1900-1950.

Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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Well, I’m stumped. It’s not often that I read a book and still have no idea how I feel about it by the end. However, Lolita has made me feel…well…I don’t know. Confused. Sickened. But I still read it, and on some level enjoyed it. Am I a terrible person?

Before I start the review proper, I have to say that there are huge trigger warnings for child abuse and paedophilia. Lolita is a graphic account of the grooming and rape of a minor and is not for the faint hearted. I’m morally opposed to banning books but even I can see why this novel caused such uproar and was removed from sale shortly after its release.

There are a lot of things to hate about this book. There are some incredibly uncomfortable parts regarding the main character’s feelings and actions towards young girls which genuinely made me feel a bit sick. His descriptions and what appear to be justifications for his behaviour are utterly abhorrent. He refers to girls that he finds attractive (and I mean girls literally – he specifies that they should be around age 12-13) as ‘nymphettes’ – a disgusting term which seemed to suggest a deliberate coquettishness by the girls which some men were unable to resist. Apart from this inference that on some level the girls were teasing the men on purpose, there were also mentions of how the age of consent is far lower in some cultures, that Lolita was fairly happy with the situation as she had a crush on him, that she willingly initiated some physical acts, that she had done it before…bleurgh. No. Just no.

Added to this is the fact that all of the characters in the book are absolutely horrible. Lolita is vapid and annoying. Her mother is even worse. Mr Humbert is a predatory paedophile. Therefore, it’s difficult sometimes to garner sympathy for Lolita, despite the awful circumstances that she finds herself in. She’s clearly been groomed but instead of being damaged by the abuse she seems almost indifferent to it. I’m not sure how realistic that is and for me this was one of the worst parts – the inference that she was getting something out of the relationship.

Despite this, Lolita is a classic for a reason and despite the content it is, without doubt, brilliantly well written. The dense, flowery language makes it seem almost Shakesperian in places and adds to the air of poetic tragedy which permeates the text.

Challenging to read, sickening in places but weirdly compelling, this is the kind of book that you’re glad to have read, even if most of the satisfaction comes from the knowledge that you’ve finished it.

Overall rating: 2.5/5

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #16 Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.

Review: All Day by Liza Jessie Peterson

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

Bugger me, America is messed up. I’m sure the UK has some pretty shocking practices when it comes to children awaiting trial for criminal offenses but as far as I’m aware we don’t lock them all up together and stick them on an island, like some kind of Lord of the Flies for black kids. However, that’s exactly what happens in this true-life account of incarcerated children – children! – who are awaiting trial for seemingly minor misdemeanors on Rikers Island, New York.

The book is the account of one teacher’s perspective on what it’s like to work with these kids. Locked up, far from their families, with just the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested, the full extent of what happens to these poor (in both senses) young men is portrayed with brutal honesty. From gang fights to mental health issues everything is recounted with no sugar coating. It’s a morbidly fascinating glimpse into a world very few of us (hopefully) will ever get to see first hand.

*At this point, I am going to have a little bit of a rant. This is tenuously linked to my review but only because of my involvement in the UK justice system. You have been warned*

As someone who spent a few years working in the UK police force at a time when they had just been branded “institutionally racist” I have a little bit of experience of the ways that we worked to change the organisational culture. We aimed to include diversity in everything we did, not just with training (a full two day session that was actually really fun) but by embedding it into everything we did, from appraisal and job interview questions to marketing and branding. We had area Diversity Action Groups with targeted action plans. We attended events like the Caribbean Carnival and Pride. We targeted recruitment adverts to specific interest publications to increase the number of female, LGBTQIA+, disabled and minority ethnic applicants. We had support groups for all the different diversity strands that reviewed all of our policies and procedures to ensure fairness and transparency. We monitored the ethnicity of anyone stopped and searched and published the figures on a monthly basis (if anyone is interested, they were always overwhelmingly white men). Of course there were still problems, but I witnessed myself the amount of work and the dedication of many, many officers and staff to really engage with the idea. And things changed. Slowly, teeny tiny bit by bit, things got slightly better. We recruited record numbers of females and minority ethnic staff. We had awareness days for religious and cultural celebrations where staff and officers brought in food and talked about what the day meant to them. It was really fun (and the free food was a huge, yummy bonus). Everyone seemed really positive about the changes that were being made. I believe (obviously I can’t prove this) that as a result, Drtection rates for hate crimes increased as more emphasis was put on outreach work within communities that were previously very hostile towards the police. I really felt like the actions that we took were having an effect on the community that the police force served.

So I was horrified to read that almost every single inhabitant at Rikers Island was black or Latino – and that it was just accepted that if they had been white they would have been let off with a slap on the wrist. I literally can’t believe how blatantly racist the system is -and that no-one is doing anything about it.

*Ok, rant over. Back to the book review…*

It was really interesting to see how working in such a place was incredibly difficult for the staff – something that often gets neglected in such stories. Peterson is understandably frightened at being left in charge of a class of potential criminals who are disinterested in learning – what’s the point when your life will forever be tarnished with a criminal record? The way that she engages with the kids, enlightens them about their options and inspires their creativity is really impressive. However, the anxiety that she has about taking the job, the sheer effort of designing interesting ways to teach the curriculum and the massively long hours (not to mention the incredibly low pay) all take their toll and I really felt for her when she had to make tough decisions about continuing in the role.

It’s a shame that, as a reader, you don’t get to understand more of the back story about the inhabitants of Rikers Island. Understandably, Peterson has to maintain a professional distance but it would have been fascinating to understand what the young men had been through in order to end up where they were. There are certain issues that get alluded to (violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse etc.) but you never get to find out a full back story.

Despite the fascinating subject matter, I also found the storytelling a little clunky. There were parts that went into massive detail and parts which were skimmed over. I thought that with better editing the book could have been really great, but as it was I gave it…

Rating: 3/5
Could have been more engaging with emphasis on the background of the inhabitants and needed editing – but worth a read for a glimpse into the murky world of reform for minors.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #19 Read a book in which a character of colour goes on a spiritual journey and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #32 Read a book about an interesting woman.